Voicing a Question of Voices

Today I spent time thinking about the idea of having your own “voice”. There’s scores of players that I can “identify from a few notes or one musical idea”, but there’s something that goes beyond this notion of readily identification. It has to be developed and nurtured. I, as well as many of my friends can identify a players playing because we spent time really checking them out and in many cases that identification comes via association to the sound/concept of other players. This process of internalizing styles and sounds in this music ultimately shapes us into the musicians that we hope to be. In the long run we want to be remembered for having our own “thing”. I’ve heard some say that the age of obtaining a personal unique style of improvising in jazz is gone. I don’t really agree with that assessment but that notion didn’t occupy my thoughts today. This is what was on my mind:

I frequently read album reviews of artists that are in my generation (25-35). Many of the writers proclaim that the artist doesn’t quite have their own “voice” or that the artist is still in the process of finding his/her own “voice”. Whenever I read a statement like this I can’t help but wonder if the writer were to put the record on repeat and listen to it all day, day in and day out (no one I know has time for this, but you know what I mean), would that artist then have their own “voice” in the view of the writer’s mind’s ear? This repetitive listening process allows a listener to recognize Miles’s sound in one or two notes.

So I guess what I’m ultimately saying is that the thought of having your own “voice” is more subjective than I thought it was. But on the same token is Trane’s individuality an absolute? I would say absolutely, but there are some that would say that he didn’t live long enough to develop his own thing. Same can be said of Brownie, considering his untimely death in ’56. So my advice to review reader is if the writer says that the player hasn’t fully blossomed into his/her own, don’t take it as an absolute, and question how much the writer has really checked out the music. Having your own voice is in the ear of the behearer……

Keep swingin,


5 Responses to “Voicing a Question of Voices”

  1. Ben Syversen Says:

    Hmm…interesting thoughts, Jason. I have often wondered about this on some level as well, particularly in the case of a player like Clifford Brown. Did he really have his own “voice?” To compare Clifford’s playing to say, Fats Navarro, the stylistic differences are probably incremental at best. Clifford arguably brought a new level of technical fluidity and elegance of execution to the instrument and the language, but it’s hard to know whether our hindsight is making us see those things as being his own “voice.”

    Another thing that this brings to mind is the question of whether it is more difficult now for an artist to have his or her own “voice” within the realm of mainstream jazz than it was, say 30, 40 or 50 years ago. At this point in time, it seems like so many unique musical personalities have been documented that anybody playing within a similar context is sure to invite comparison to some of them. Is there room now for a tenor saxophone player who plays jazz standards to play in a way that can’t be compared to either Coltrane or Rollins? Even if the tenor player rejects those two models, there is still Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp, or on the other end of the spectrum Warne Marsh, and many many more as well as more recent players like Chris Potter, Mark Turner, etc. Sometimes one is left to wonder whether at this point in time everything that could be seen “unique” has been done already. But maybe that’s what it has always felt like until the next “big thing” was created. And besides, maybe playing in a way that is not similar to other players is not even what the term “individual voice” really even means. Maybe “individual voice” just requires some kind of genuine reflection of who a musician really is…

  2. Very nice to hear from you Ben, I trust that you are doing well in NY. I think it’s certainly safe to say that due to Clifford’s untimely passing, his most creative phase had yet to reveal itself. It’s incredible to think that his playing could have progressed to a higher level, but considering his work ethic, his playing would have progressed had he lived longer.

    When I met Clark Terry for the first time back in 1997, I asked him what goes into developing a personal style in this music and he told me to focus on three things: Sound, Time, and Ideas. I really took that to heart and I tend to use these three factors when internalizing a particular player’s style.

    I definitely think that it’s more difficult for today’s artist to develop a personal style due to several factors. Many players feel the pressure to check out as much of the lineage of their instrument before searching within to find out who they really are and what that sound sounds like. I am in the camp that says you can do both simultaneously. The ironic thing about this is that this music is still new compared to the classical canon. The difference in this case being that in improvisation, idividuality is paramount to an artist’s legacy.

    I guess what it’s coming down to is that in order for musicians to obtain their own thing, they have to be heard by many, many times over. During this process, musicians are able to get better by honing their skillset and the listener gets taken for a ride.

    I’d like to start a blog in the future that talks about the relation to developing your style/voice via the tunes that you play/compose. I think that this is a very important aspect when it comes to discovery.


  3. I have always felt that knowledge of the jazz idiom, of one’s instrument and oneself are the required elements in developing an individual sound. All musicians have knowledge of these three elements in varying ratios.

    Billie Holiday had a sense of how she wanted to sing, but her technique was not the best. Many felt that Wynton Marsalis had great chops when he hit the scene at ago 20, and a deep exposure to the legacy of jazz, but his own ideas as an improvisor were still derivative.

    Monk and Bill Evans, on the other hand, had strong personal sounds almost from the beginning of their careers, with Evans coming from a very strict classical piano technique, and Monk using a decidedly homemade approach to playing.

    So, I submit that the balance between what we know of the music, our mastery on our instrument, and what we want to express/communicate dictates how our sound evolves.

  4. From the conversations that I’ve had with people that knew Monk, they’ve told me that he had great technique and was a wonderful player of classical music.


  5. […] way of playing.” But even then, as Boston trumpeter/blogger Jason Palmer pointed out here, and as Durkin (again) wrote here, hearing voices, or the inability to do so, may be more of a […]

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